Warning: contains spoilers for The Walking Dead seasons 1-6. And gory images. Ugh.
Hairdressers exist after the undead apocalypse. We know this to be the case in The Walking Dead not only because we met one—Rick’s ill-fated girlfriend Jessie—but because the majority of characters have been able to maintain some kind of post-global destruction ‘do. Carol has a pixie crop. Daryl sports a complicated homage to Link from Zelda, and you could happily roll marbles around on Abraham’s flat-top all the live-long day.
One character though, has thus far defied the scissors: Carl Grimes. And now, after the events of season 6B, we know why.
“There’s a reason why [Carl’s] hair’s so long,” VFX veteran and director Greg Nicotero said in this Kimberley Potts interview. “You figure as this show progresses having a kid who would have longer hair, it would drape over the side of his face and diminish looking at a bandaged head all the time.”
There you have it. Carl’s hair was deliberately grown long as camouflage for his eyeless prosthetics, a simple disguise for covering up the joins years in the planning.
Here are some more insights Nicotero and his team have given over the years into the ingenious practical effects used to create some of The Walking Dead‘s memorable moments…
Creating “bicycle girl” in the pilot, Days Gone By
“We did a whole life casting on Melissa Cowan who has a great face for zombie makeup” Nicotero told Deadline. “We did a one-piece foam latex face and neck, two more for chest and back. We put the custom dentures in first and then applied the latex over it so you could see her rotting gums and part of her skull. Her makeup application took a little over three hours.”
In terms of losing her legs, they couldn’t dig a hole due to the shooting location in a real park, and decided against building a platform to hide them. “We ended up putting her in blue leggings so that visual effects guys could remove the bottom half. So the top was all prosthetics. People could not figure out how we did it. There was a big Internet debate and some fans said it was a puppet. Others insisted that she was full CGI.”
Making fake blood
“We make all the blood in-house,” Nicotero told Vulture, “and we also provide the blood for the art department and for wardrobe and for makeup, so we go through hundreds of gallons.
The trick to it, he confided in The Frame is using “powdered food colouring, not liquid food colouring. You can go to the supermarket, and you can buy red liquid food colouring. When I was a little kid, that’s what I made fake blood out of, because that’s all that there was. But as soon as you do that, that blood stains your hands. So then you have a red stained bloody hand for two days. But if you use powdered food colouring — you can get it at a bakery or a shop that provides bakery supplies — you can use red and yellow powdered food colouring and put a little bit of soap in with it, and the soap will keep the blood from staining your hands.”
Michonne’s Walker-slicing katana
According to FXguide, “on set, the actor will perform hit shots with a half-sword – extended digitally – against a zombie actor in practical make-up.” Victor Scalise, visual effects supervisor of Stargate Studios explained in 2013, “We then take the zombie extra who’s been made up practically and slice him in half digitally. We add the innards and make the body slide and add pieces as it falls off the frame.”
Creating Michonne’s “pets”
“Since walkers really don’t blink a lot, and their eyes are already dead and rotted looking,” Nicotero told Collider, “we built a prosthetic that built the performer’s faces out and we put fake guys in those prosthetics. So, when you’re looking at them, you’re not seeing the actor’s eyes. You’re seeing fake eyes because we were able to simulate the missing jaw and the pulled-out teeth. Everything on their bodies is all practical, aside from the missing arms, which we painted blue. One of the things that I strive for, as a make-up effects artist, is to mix mediums. I always feel that you keep the audience guessing by throwing tricks at them, every so often. So, you’ll see a practical zombie face with no arms.”
Reanimating Hershel’s head in season four episode, After
“We created a cast of Scott Wilson’s head and created an animatronic that had jaw movements.” Nicotero told AMC. “We sculpted the skin then moulded it and created a foam latex head with a fibre glass under-structure that was cable-operated for the jaw. One little augmentation I wanted to do was digital eyes. The one thing that always gives away an animatronic head are the eyes because the eyes are always challenging to replicate in terms of movements and blinking. I went to Visual Effects and what we ended up with was an animatronic with real eyes as a digital composite onto the head. The fact that we had a couple of real flies flying around the head was a complete bonus.”
Bonus fact: Nicotero told Access Hollywood that he made a second cast of Scott Wilson’s head and gave it to him as a souvenir. “I didn’t give him the chopped up gory version. We had it with the shoulders on and it’s made out of silicone and it has glass eyes, and all the hair is touched in, individually, one and at a time, so I gave one of them to him, because I thought he would want one”.
Slitting Sam’s throat in season five premiere, No Sanctuary
When Rick, Daryl, Glenn, Bob and Robin Lord Taylor’s Sam were trussed up over a Terminus trough in No Sanctuary, each had a tube around their neck containing fake blood which was digitally removed after shooting. “We shot the entire scene with the tube there,” Nicotero told Entertainment Weekly, “and then the actor came across with the knife and we sprayed the blood out.” For the death of Lord Taylor’s character, “I had that low angle,” remembers Nicotero, “where the blood sprayed the lens and they were like, “You’re never going to get away with that. They’ll never let you do it.”
The spurting blood came as much of a surprise to the actors as the viewer, he continues. “Steven and Andy and Norman and Lawrence, they had no idea really what it was going to be like. They knew there was a tube there and we were going to pump some blood, but when they were leaned over and they heard the actor’s scream and the blood hitting the trough and seeing the blood, it freaked them out. It was really powerful and they started moving a little faster. All of a sudden their hearts were pounding. And that was my intent. I wanted those emotions to be real.”
The flaming Walkers at Terminus in the season five premiere
“We had six cameras on the explosion,” Nicotero told Entertainment Weekly. We had all the body parts on fire around where the explosion was. And then, of course, the actual walkers themselves. We had stunt performers with flames on them. I would say seventy percent of the shots in the episode are practical, and then we did a little of augmentation on one or two walkers.
I think the bit that I’m most proud of is we took a puppet head and we actually covered it with flammable material and we had a stunt person with a silicone mask on of a normal human face and we had the zombie bite its face off. And it was an actual puppet head on fire biting a stunt person protected by the mask.”
The flooded basement Walkers in season five’s Strangers
“Robert Kirkman wrote that episode and we kept referencing the original RoboCop,” Nicotero told MTV. “Like the guy who gets hit with the toxic waste and all the skin is sort of dripping off of his flesh. So we did a combination of prosthetics, and then the walker that grabs Bob [Lawrence Gilliard Jr] and then he fights with, was a full animatronics puppet, so that so much of the skin was slopped off that you could actually see the skeleton and the bone underneath.”
Shooting the black and white flashbacks in the season six premiere First Time Again
“We did not film in black-and-white, no,” Nicotero told Variety, “But we wanted to make sure there was a visual callback to the flashbacks versus the present day footage. It was something that was very important to us. We had done a couple of tests, including one where we de-saturated the flashbacks and over-saturated the present day action but it didn’t work. Our show is not over-saturated to begin with, so it sort of ends up looking like The Wizard Of Oz It was too vibrant. In a world where everything is supposed to be dead, we didn’t want to add that level of detail. The black-and-white fit perfectly with our storytelling.”
The Glenn and Nicholas dumpster scene in season six’s Thank You/Heads Up
Nicotero told us in this interview, “The day that we shot the Glenn/Nicholas thing, the way I designed that gag was we got those freezer bags where you can seal the ends, we filled it with blood and fake guts then basically strapped it to Michael Traynor’s chest – it was filled with two gallons of blood and tons of gore! I had built two little rings that had nails in them, so I had four stunt guys around me and said “Okay, listen – I’m in make-up and I’m going to puncture the bag, so as soon as you see a little bit of blood well out from between my fingers, you two to push down on the bag and I want you to grab and rip it open.
So as soon we punctured the bag and they saw the puncture, by pushing on that freezer bag the blood just welled out and then the other guy grabbed it and ripped it. There was no puppet that was all in-camera, but it was important for me to be there to choreograph everything.
Steven (Yeun) was looking right down at me and I was in zombie mode, mouth open and he said he could see my tonsils! But he said “Dude that was fucking scary!” because I grabbed his foot and tried to pull him into the crowd and I said “Listen, if I get a hold of you and I’m pulling you in, you better fight me because I am not going to let you get away.”
Daryl firing a rocket-propelled grenade at the Saviors in season six’s No Way Out
Nicotero explains in this Kimberley Potts post that the shot of Daryl saving Sasha and Abraham by firing an RPG at Negen’s men in No Way Out was achieved using practical effects.
“When we shot that, we actually had the cameras locked off, so that when he raises up the gun, we cut. We took all the actors and then we brought in dummies filled with giant blood bags and primer cord, and we physically blew dummies to pieces in the shot. There’s a lot of practical effects in this episode, because we really wanted everything to feel authentic. I didn’t want to go with a lot of fireballs and visual effects stuff. I wanted everything to feel real.”
Igniting the lake in season six’s No Way Out
“We probably detonated the explosion in the lake about seven or eight times. I just said, “How many times can we do this?” because there are people who live around there, and I was a little concerned that we were going to be blowing people out of their beds in the middle of night detonating that explosion. They’re like, “No, we’re fine,” so up until five in the morning, we were detonating the propane tanks that were put into the lake by [SFX Supervisor] Darrell Pritchett and our physical effects team,” Nicotero told this Kimberley Potts interview.
We really made a few sacrifices to guarantee that this episode would be shot at night, because I just think having that lake on fire during the day wouldn’t have nearly the same impact as those beautiful silhouette shots of the raging flames in the background, which were real, and people walking towards the fire, which was also real.
Every time I was shooting walkers in the street and that light source went off, what was beautiful to me was the entire block was lit up by orange light. You see shots where the entire side of a house becomes orange, and all the zombies turn towards the flames”
Shooting Carl’s eye in No Way Out
For the scene of Rick running through Alexandria carrying Carl after he’s shot, a dummy made of actor Chandler Riggs. Nicotero explains here, “We sculpted a prosthetic that Chandler wears, and we also had a dummy that we made of Chandler, which was a spot-on match. When you see Carl turn in that reveal, it’s Chandler with some blood on his face, and we digitally composited the wound onto Chandler’s face. It wasn’t a CGI wound; it was an actual wound that we put onto Carl’s face. Then when Rick’s running through the streets carrying Carl, that was a dummy the entire time.”